There is only one player in the NFL who has seen Mike Pettine coach defense in all four of his NFL stops – Baltimore, New York, Buffalo and now Cleveland.
Jim Leonhard, 31, is playing in his 10th NFL season and 2014 will be his sixth right by Pettine's side. The system's success jumps off the page. When Leonhard has been with Pettine, the defense has averaged ranking 4th in the NFL.
Defensive ranking (yards allowed)
The line of people doubting the Browns' defense is growing. Cleveland currently ranks 31st in the league in yards allowed. Tackling has been sloppy, sacking quarterbacks hasn't been easy and giving up big plays have come at the wrong times for the Browns.
These may seem like unusual bumps in the road for Pettine. To Leonhard, it's not like Browns' elaborate defensive schemes went bad overnight. It's just a matter of time before everything starts to click together – the players, the coaching and the proper execution.
"We just have to trust the system," said Leonhard in the locker room on Monday. "I've been in this system a long time. I've been in new places installing it, just like this, when it's a first year in a system. It's just guys really buying in. Once you see it on tape and see the success come it makes it easy for guys to just buy in and do their job."
As Pettine explained on Monday, he and O'Neil's biggest job is putting together the game plan during the week. They take player input and review it as an entire defense for a few hours at a time. Then once Sunday hits, Pettine and O'Neil's jobs are theoretically easier. The pair builds out the entire play sheet into a flow chart. If it's third-down and eight late in the fourth quarter, the Browns have a small series of plays to choose from. The coaches can visualize scenarios, and which player has the skill set and smarts to make an interception, a sack or a game-changing play in general.
The reason why Pettine's defenses are widely regarded as some of the most feared? Players like Jim Leonhard buying into doing their job and not trying to make a big play when it's not there.
Leonhard's been a chameleon willing to morph his role at the snap of a finger. He's been a safety launching himself into receivers to force incomplete passes. Sometimes Leonhard was used as a decoy in the secondary to set up some other type of play. He's even returned punts.
Leonhard bought into his role. He trusted the coaching staff to put him in the right place.
In order for the Cleveland Browns to improve themselves on defense, it won't be veterans like Karlos Dansby, Paul Kruger or even Leonhard firing up the younger players with motivational speeches. Playing with passion only takes a team so far. The real change will come from looking in the mirror and putting in the necessary study time to get better individually.
"Everyone has to take a look at themselves right now and find out what we can do to help this team win," Leonhard said. "We're close. All three games are down to the last play of the game. It doesn't take much to turn the corner, get on a streak, and get some wins. Over this bye week everyone has to take a look at themselves and see what they can do to find that one more play."
In Leonhard's mind, the Browns' bye week can be used as a weapon moving forward. Because the defense is still in the first year of installing a system, it allows Cleveland to do many things – pinpointing issues (mainly the run defense), tinkering with technique and also clearing their heads.
"Having the bye week earlier than later might be a good thing because you can look at how teams attack us and at some of the things we are struggling with," said Leonhard. "It gives you time to kind of reset and get back to fundamentals. If you have the bye week 8 or 9, it could be a little too late to realize some of the little things that could be easily corrected."
Cleveland will practice Wednesday and Thursday during the bye week to ensure improvement is made.
Champ, I don't think we're in Columbia anymore. 47° in September... #WinterIsComing pic.twitter.com/cMH14EkxQP — Connor Shaw (@cmshaw9) September 23, 2014